The spread of QR code-based digital quarantine systems has made digital surveillance a reality for the first time for most people on the mainland. While many credit the system with allowing China to emerge from lockdowns after only a few weeks, mainland commentators are also worrying about the privacy and governance implications of what some call a growing “digital Leviathan.” Many assume that the system will outlive the epidemic it was built to control.

Wang Rong, a researcher at Tencent’s internal think tank, worries that China’s legal privacy framework isn’t up to the task of ensuring privacy for Health Code users. He argues that China’s policies should more closely follow Europe’s GDPR framework, which clearly delineates between data processors (the role Tencent and Ali have played) and controllers (the government). Wang argues that the government should be held accountable on a number of dimensions for digital quarantine. 

[In Europe], the data processor can only process data in accordance with the written requirements of the data controller, and must ensure that its employees can comply with the requirements of confidentiality.

As the controller, the government department should limit the scope of data collection to the necessary range related to the epidemic when establishing the scope of data collection and use.

The government department has not been fully integrated into the personal information protection legal system. Although the national standard “Information Security Technology-Personal Information Security Specification” does not distinguish between applicable subjects, it is still a recommended technical standard and is not mandatory for various subjects including the government. Compared with internationally accepted practices, there is no doubt that the government is an important applicable subject in the legal system of personal information protection. 

Yan Hailu, a political economy researcher, traced back the growth of China’s surveillance state to 9/11 in The Initium, a Hong Kong-based outlet.  

Unlike Google and Apple’s designs based on voluntary and selective user participation, Alibaba and Tencent, which have taken the lead in developing “health codes” to assist the Chinese government in incorporating the majority of users into a mandatory, algorithm-based social management system.

During the epidemic, China’s commercial data giants not only provided tracing data including data consumption and mobile calls to the government, but also invested in the development of big data platforms and systems to help the government monitor the epidemic, such as Baidu’s migration data platform, Alibaba monitoring cloud, and so on. As epidemic prevention has become the number one priority for local governments, state-owned enterprises are also providing epidemic prevention technical support to the government. China’s three major communications operations have developed their own big data application solutions. Among them, China Unicom has developed an epidemic prevention and control big data platform for the government, and 13 epidemic prevention and control models; China Mobile has made lists of mobile phone customers staying in Wuhan and Hubei. Mobility analysis and big data portraits, combined with population analysis of hospitals, commercial districts, campuses, etc., provide management support for governments at all levels in Hubei Province; China Telecom also monitors the movement of people in key epidemic areas and changes in the flow of people in key areas of various provinces. 

In fact, the health code has been described by some officials as a digital governance tool that can be retained and expanded in the future, and some Chinese public management scholars advocate that the “health code” be used as a lever to build digital infrastructure and further break down information silos. 

Yan was skeptical, however, that there’s a digital quarantine fix to the problems that caused the outbreak.

A digital Leviathan can certainly prevent the threat of citizens and society to the security of the regime, and prevent the spread of the epidemic after the outbreak, but it cannot prevent the systemic failures that caused the outbreak.

Finally, podcast host Li Houchen imagines Chinese society with a permanent Health Code system in a post on the platform “Seeing Ideals.” Li’s podcast focuses on deep dives into Western political thought—a bit like Sam Harris—and he worries about balancing digital quarantine with individual rights. 

The core logic of this risk spread is: in the face of diseases like Covid-19, preventive measures are always better than not doing enough.

But what about preventing medical staff from returning to the community? Medical staff are definitely a group with high health risks. Personal freedom can be compromised, so what will stop us from not behaving decently to those compromised by the disease?

At the moment when the continuation and expansion of the health code is almost inevitable, I suggest that you pay attention and discuss the following matters:

a. Legislative characteristics of health codes

The connotation of the sacred social contract we signed is: If I have not violated the consensus (law) reached by everyone through public persuasion, my freedom should not be restricted.

So if the health code restricts access in such a powerful way, then every citizen needs to understand the operating principles and rules of the health code.

Everyone should transparently understand why they are assigned a red code when they receive one.

b. The human element of health codes

No matter how automated the health code itself is, in order to avoid the advent of a digital Leviathan, the health code itself also needs to have a centralized management department, a place to lodge complaints, and finally a mechanism for complete review and adjustment.

c. Compensation for high-risk groups

In order to prevent the health code from becoming a tool for the majority to exclude and discriminate against the minority, it’s extremely important for those who are evaluated as “unhealthy” to receive some form of compensation. 

Responding to the system in a proactive way, rather than rushing to get in line, show off our support, and engage in groupthink, is a top priority for public culture change.

Jordan Schneider

Jordan Schneider is a freelancer based in Beijing and the host of the ChinaEconTalk podcast.